Born 1942, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; lives in Val Verde, California

A critical and contemplative engagement with landscape informs the work of filmmaker James Benning. His films are often labeled structuralist and Minimalist, terms that fail to account for the breadth of ideas and emotions to be gleaned from his meticulous studies of geography. “Landscape,” Benning has said, “is actually a function of time,” and for more than thirty years, he has fixed his 16mm camera on American spaces to excavate strata of form, feeling, history, and culture.

Mixing dramatic re-creation with uninflected documentary, Landscape Suicide (1986) contemplates the unremarkable sites of sensational murders. Four Corners (1997) develops an essayistic meditation on art, politics, and identity out of the famous geographic nexus shared by Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. In El Valley Centro (1999), Los (2001), and Sogobi (2001), the flux of landscape is mediated through strict formal parameters. Collectively known as The California Trilogy, each 90-minute film consists of exactly thirty-five fixed-position images lasting 150 seconds each, a rigorously circumscribed framework through which Benning presents an epic study of the Golden State’s genius loci.

One Way Boogie Woogie (1978), a meditation on the one-way streets of Milwaukee’s industrial districts, is conceived along similarly strict lines. Each of the film’s sixty shots lasts 60 seconds and ends with a physical event that punctures the static tableau: a playfulness and economy of form worthy of the reference to Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43). In 2004, Benning returned to the sites of One Way Boogie Woogie for a shot-by-shot remake transparently subtitled 27 Years Later. The cityscape is much changed, with buildings in shambles or gone altogether. Viewed in sequence, the two films reinforce a haunting examination of temporal drift and spatial flux. Trained as a mathematician, Benning has described his analytically designed films as akin to theoretic proofs, “elegant solutions” to aesthetic problems. By instinct he is an artist of the tableau and has referred to Ten Skies (2005) and 13 Lakes (2005) as “found paintings.” The subjects of 13 Lakes are framed with the horizon line bisecting the image, allowing for a mesmerizing interplay of shape and shadow between the zones of earth and sky. Indebted to the serialism and transcendent duration of Warhol’s early films, 13 Lakes may also be understood in the luminous tradition of Monet’s late cycles of haystack and cathedral paintings.

Ten Skies consists of ten upward-looking views, each 10 minutes in length, filmed from Benning’s backyard. As he has described, “Each sky is a detail selected from the whole, sometimes filled with drama, sometimes a metaphor for peace.… I think of my landscape works now as antiwar artworks—they’re about the antithesis of war, the kind of beauty we’re destroying.”


...read more about this artist in the Biennial Catalogue

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Still from 13 Lakes, 2005. 16mm film, color, sound; 135 min.